'To Kill a Mockingbird' Quotes Explained

To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Jenna Louise "Scout" Finch, an adult woman recalling her childhood. Because of this layered narration, the six-year old Scout often sounds precocious in her understanding of life and her elevated vocabulary. This technique allows Lee to explore her complex, dark, adult themes through the innocent lens of childhood. The following quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird, which demonstrate the novel's multifaceted style, address key themes such as racism, justice, growing up, and innocence.

Quotes About Innocence and Growing Up

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” (Chapter 2)

Scout learned to read at a young age thanks to her father, Atticus. On the first day of school, Scout's teacher, Miss Caroline, insists that Scout stop reading with Atticus so that she can learn "correctly" in school. The six-year-old Scout is taken aback, and in this quote, she reflects on how the moment influenced her. Scout grew up with the sense that reading is akin to breathing: an expected, natural, even instinctive human behavior. As such, she had no real appreciation, or love, for her ability to read. But when faced with the threat of no longer being able to read, Scout suddenly realizes how much it means to her.

This quote also represents Scout's growing awareness of the world around her. As a child, her worldview is understandably narrow and limited to her own experiences (i.e., believing that reading is as natural as breathing). But as the narrative progresses, Scout's worldview evolves, and she begins to see how race, gender, and class have shaped her perspective and life experiences.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." (Chapter 3)

In this quote, Atticus offers Scout advice for understanding and empathizing with other people. He gives this advice in response to Scout's complaints about her teacher, Miss Caroline, but the quote really encapsulates his entire philosophy on life, and it's one of the biggest lessons Scout must learn over the course of the novel. The simple but wise advice is challenging for young Scout to follow, as her childlike perspective can be quite narrow. However, by the end of the novel, Scout's increased empathy for Boo Radley demonstrates that she has truly internalized Atticus' advice.

“Bad language is a stage all children go through, and it dies with time when they learn they're not attracting attention with it.” (Chapter 9)

Atticus is often perceived by his neighbors as an unqualified parent, in part because of his gender—in 1930s American society men were not seen as having the proper emotional and domestic skills to be single parents—and in part because of his bookish, mild-mannered nature. He is, however, a very smart and loving father and a man who has an almost supernatural understanding of the childish psyche. When Scout begins using profanities as a novelty, his reaction is mild and unconcerned because he understands this is just part of Scout growing up, testing boundaries, and play-acting with adult things. This also demonstrates his understanding that Scout is intelligent and verbal, and is excited by forbidden and mysterious vocabularies.

“Scout, I think I'm beginning to understand something. I think I'm beginning to understand why Boo Radley's stayed shut up in the house all this time... it's because he wants to stay inside.” (Chapter 23)

Jem’s quote towards the end of the story is heartbreaking. In his teen years by this point, Jem has seen the bad parts of his neighbors and is disappointed and disturbed by the realization that there is so much violence, hatred, and prejudice in the world. His expression of empathy for Boo Radley is also significant—like his sister, Jem has progressed from viewing Boo as a phantom and an object of fun to seeing him as a human being, and, even more importantly, being able to imagine Boo’s motivations for his actions and behavior.

Quote About the Mockingbird

“Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy... but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” (Chapter 10)

The central symbol of the novel is the mockingbird. The mockingbird is considered sacred because it does no harm; its only act is to provide music. Several characters are obliquely or explicitly identified with mockingbirds throughout the novel. The Finches are linked through their evocative last name, for example. Most notably, when she finally sees Boo Radley for the innocent, childlike soul he is, Scout realizes that doing any harm to him would be like "shooting a mockingbird."

Quotes About Justice and Racism in the South

“There are just some kind of men who—who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” (Chapter 5)

Lee crafts a subtly iconoclastic and liberal tone in the novel. Here Miss Maudie is complaining specifically about the local Baptists who disapprove of her garden because it supposedly represents pridefulness that offends God, but it is also a general admonishment to anyone who seeks to impose their own sense of propriety on other people. This concept forms a part of Scout’s evolving understanding of the difference between what’s morally right and what society insists is correct.

In the beginning of the novel, Scout’s concept of justice and right and wrong is very and simple (as is appropriate for a child of her age). She believes it is easy to know what is right, she is always willing to fight for it, and she believes that by fighting she will be victorious. Her experiences with racism, Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley teach her that not only is right and wrong often more difficult to parse, but sometimes you fight for what you believe in even if you are bound to lose—just as Atticus fights for Tom even though he is doomed to fail.

“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” (Chapter 23)

Atticus has immense faith in the fundamental systems of America, in particular the court system. Here he states two beliefs that define him: One, the supreme confidence that the legal system is impartial and fair; and two, that all men are deserving of the same fair treatment and respect, and those who would treat you differently because of your race or social position are unworthy. Atticus is forced to admit the former is not as true as he would like when Tom is convicted despite the robust defense Atticus provides, but his faith in the latter remains by the end of the book.

“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.” (Chapter 23)

This simple line, spoken by Jem at the end of the novel, may be the simplest expression of the fundamental theme of the story. Jem and Scout’s adventures throughout the story have shown them many sides of many different people, and Jem’s conclusion is a powerful one: All people have flaws and struggles, strengths and weaknesses. Jem’s conclusion is not the starry-eyed faith of childhood, but a more measured and mature realization that no one group of people is better—or worse—in general than any other.

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Somers, Jeffrey. "'To Kill a Mockingbird' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird-quotes-p2-741681. Somers, Jeffrey. (2023, April 5). 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Quotes Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird-quotes-p2-741681 Somers, Jeffrey. "'To Kill a Mockingbird' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird-quotes-p2-741681 (accessed May 28, 2023).